The Irish Times view on food labelling: defending the sausage

MEPs stepped back from a farm lobby-proposed ban on labels using meat terms for vegetarian products

‘What have they got against the British sausage?” Bernard asked Minister James Hacker in an episode of Yes Minister! The sausage was to be rebranded by the EU as an “emulsified, high-fat offal tube”. Well, Hacker admitted ruefully, though ready to die on the ditch for the said sausage, “the average British sausage consists of 32 per cent fat … only 26 per cent meat, mostly gristle, other offcuts, and mechanically recovered meat steamed off the carcass”.

"Europe" is at it again, life imitating art. This time, a victory for sanity and plant-based food campaigners. On Friday MEPs stepped back from a farm-lobby proposed ban, backed by their agriculture committee, on labels using meat terms for vegetarian products such as vegan "burgers", "sausages", "steak", or "escalope" in favour of alternatives like "veggie discs" or "fingers". But they agreed by 386 votes to 290 (with Fine Gael support) to prohibit the use of dairy descriptions for vegan items, such as "butter substitute", "imitation cheese" or "yogurt style".

Labelling must still make clear produce does not contain meat – it's not a question of 'passing off' or fraud on customers

Previously the union has banned terms such as “soy milk” and “vegan cheese”, the Court of Justice of the EU ruling in 2017 that non-dairy products can’t be described as milk and cheese, even with the preface tofu.

Ostensibly a bid to “protect customers” from confusion – “nonsense”, say consumer groups – the labelling proposal is in truth a desperate bid to protect market share in the face of the growth of veganism – sales of plant-based products have jumped 73 per cent in Europe over the past five years. The claim that labelling as a meat or milk alternative “disrespects” traditional farmers’ work and is what one farming representative called “the hijacking of the work done by the livestock chain over the years to develop their renowned products” is a little rich. Labelling must still make clear produce does not contain meat – it’s not a question of “passing off” or fraud on customers.

If farmers are worried about consumers, how about labels refering to the health or climate-warming effects of produce?

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